Unless someone kept score during the entire 10-hour public hearing for the expansion of state Route 241, it would be hard to say who had a greater presence Sept. 22 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Based on a quick glance at the audience, it appeared project opponents sporting green or blue T-shirts stating “Save the Park: Stop the Toll Road” or “Save San Onofre” may have had a slight edge over proponents whose orange T-shirts proclaimed “It’s All Good,” “Live Better: Build Roads” or “Less Traffic: More Jobs.”
But for every speaker who vehemently opposed the toll road expansion, there was one who supported it with equal and opposite passion.
With high gas prices and efforts to decrease greenhouse gases, “people are demanding better public transportation, not more freeways,” Del Mar City Councilwoman Crystal Crawford said. Crawford was one of 51 elected officials scheduled to speak.
Oceanside City Councilman Jack Feller, on the other hand, described the 16-mile project as a “practical solution” about “people, safety and jobs.” Because the roadway could be used as an alternate evacuation route, Feller said it “could be a matter of life or death.” He also said it is vital to future tourism in the area. “If we don’t invest in transportation routes such as 241, visitors to San Diego will consider other areas,” Feller said. “This is a critical issue for North County San Diego.”
Feller’s colleague Esther Sanchez disagreed, saying the roadway would “decimate one of our most precious state parks.”
For every lawyer whose opinion was based on fact, there was another with the same argument.
“I simply ask you to uphold the law,” attorney and state Treasurer Bill Lockyer said. In February, the California Coastal Commission denied the project. The U.S. Department of Commerce held the Sept. 22 hearing after an appeal was filed by The Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency, which is building the roadway. The Commerce Department has until Jan. 7 to overturn the denial if it deems the project benefits national interests.
Speaking as a lawyer, Lockyer said the standards to override the decision cannot be met. “There is no compelling national interest,” he said, noting that “there are reasonable alternatives.” As state attorney general, Lockyer said he filed two lawsuits in 2006 to block the project.
In response, Lake Forest City Councilman Peter Herzog said it was a simple case of contractual agreements, which “any lawyer should stand behind.”
Known as the Foothill South project, the extension has been in development since 1981. It is the final segment of the 241 toll road that currently ends at Oso Parkway. If completed, the toll road would connect to Interstate 5 near San Onofre State Beach, a park area established in 1971 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. Plans have the road cutting through the state park.
In all, 657 people requested to speak, although only about 155 were expected to be able to provide testimony. Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Commerce Department agency facilitating the hearing, tried in vain to convince the audience to express their views quietly with a thumbs up or thumbs down. But attendees couldn’t resist sharing their opinions about each speaker’s stand with boos, cheers, applause and an occasional comment such as, “Stop selling our state.”
There was a pro for every con, with supporters claiming the route will reduce traffic and improve lives, and opponents fearing irreparable environmental damage to the park, beach and well-known surf spot Trestles.
State Sen. Mark Wyland, whose 38th District includes the project area, said according to a study by Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the surf will not be affected. He said Route 241 “is the only viable option,” a conclusion drawn after nearly three decades of research and a six-year, $18 million study. In response to widening Interstate 5 to relieve traffic, Wyland said, “It will not happen.” He said there is no money for such a project and it would adversely affect too many homes, businesses, schools and churches. He also said the project “meets the needs of Camp Pendleton.”
Solana Beach Mayor Dave Roberts disagreed. He said an encroachment on training needs at Camp Pendleton should not be permitted. “That does a disservice to our troops and their families,” Roberts said. “Let our Marines train in a safe, secure area.”
Solana Beach City Councilwoman Lesa Heebner said the project would offer short-term and questionable gains. “With all due respect to the Commerce Department, the Coastal Commission got it right,” she said.